Types Of Drivers Licenses Available In The U.S.

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In order for any citizen to drive in the United States, they need a government-issued driver’s license.

Each state issues its own driver’s license and has its very own renewal, replacement and suspension processes, each with their very own set of requirements. Nevertheless, most states provide the same types of drivers licenses.

Types Of Driver’s Licenses

The only types of driver’s license that are the same in every state due to federal regulations are the commercial license classes (i.e.,CDLs). Non-commercial licenses, however, can be more complicated, because although most states agree on categories, several states offer additional categories to cater to their own reality and needs.

For instance, Michigan or New Jersey, that issue special licenses to minors allowing them to operate farming vehicles, or Wyoming, where a class I driver’s license is issued to minors learning to drive (instruction permit).

The most common types of driver’s license in the United States are:

  • Unrestricted licenses
  • Provisional licenses
  • Chauffeur licenses (professional drivers)
  • Motorcycle licenses
  • Enhanced Licenses

Unrestricted Licenses

Unrestricted licenses are the most frequent types of driver’s licenses, and they can either be commercial or non-commercial licenses. They differ from several other licenses, such as those intended to motorcycle drivers or chauffeurs, and, unlike restricted licenses, drivers with unrestricted licenses don’t have limitations on their driving.

Restricted licenses are normally granted to people who initially had unrestricted licenses, and because of committing serious infractions, such as driving under the influence of alcohol, for instance, are subject to additional controls. It is an option to having their license suspended, available only to some drivers.

However, restricted licenses are also issued to minors in some states. They allow minors to drive in the state under certain conditions, such as using the vehicle only to travel to and from work, or during the hours of daylight, and, at times, they allow for the minor to drive as long as they are accompanied by and adult or certified instructor over 21 years old.

Provisional Licenses

Although functionally they are the same as regular driver’s licenses, they are normally issued to minors. Each state also has different requirements and regulations when it comes to such licenses or permits, and they have different names as well.

While in states such as Indiana, Vermont or Puerto Rico these are normally referred to as learner’s permits or licenses, in Washington they are known as Intermediate Driver Licenses, in Missouri as Under 21 Driver’s License, in Tennessee Class H and P licenses and in New York state class MJ (motorcycles) and DJ (passenger vehicles).

Although some states such as Oregon allow for minors over 16 years of age to be issued regular driver’s licenses, most states provide provisional licenses to minors, which must be replaced for a regular driver’s license once the minor becomes of age.

Chauffeur Licenses

Although they are functionally the same as a regular driver’s license, these types of driver’s licenses also allow cardholders to drive taxis, limousines, vans that transport passengers for commercial purposes. You want to work as a chauffeur, your state of residency may ask you for this type of driver’s license.

While in states such as Delaware, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Louisiana, Rhode Island and Wisconsin these types of driver’s licenses are known as chauffeur licenses, many states provide CDLs.

CDLs are normally issued in three classes, depending on the weight of the vehicle:

  • Class A: combination (tractor plus trailer) vehicle of 26,000 lbs.
  • Class B: single vehicle of 26,000 lbs. or more and combination vehicles for commercial use of 26,000 lbs. or less
  • Class C: vehicles not fitting the other two classes, which are equipped to deal with hazardous materials and carry 15 passengers or less

In order for drivers to operate specific types of vehicles for which additional training is necessary. Requirements to receive such endorsements tend to be very similar throughout the country, although there might be variations from one state to another.

Endorsements can be:

  • P: driver can carry passengers
  • H: hazardous materials
  • M: metal coil
  • N: tank vehicles
  • T: double and triple trailers.
  • X: hazardous materials in tank vehicles
  • L: Air Brakes
  • S: School Bus

Additionally, CDLs can also have restrictions:

  • B: wearing corrective lenses while operating motor vehicles
  • C: mechanical aid required to operate vehicles
  • D: prosthetic aid required to operate vehicles
  • E: driver can only operate automatic transmission vehicles
  • F: outside mirror required
  • G: can only operate during daylight hours
  • K: intrastate driving restriction
  • L: cannot operate vehicles with air brakes
  • M: can only operate CDL-B school buses
  • N: A and B classes can only operate C school buses
  • O: can only operate pintail hook trailers
  • Z: can only drive in vehicles with Alcohol Interlock Devices
  • T: 60-day temporary license

Motorcycle Licenses

Motorcycle license is one of the types of driver’s licenses in the United States that varies remarkably between states. While some states issue class M to bikers—such as Alabama, Columbia, Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Wyoming or Wisconsin—others have classified these types of driver’s licenses differently. For instance:

  • West Virginia issues class F licenses to bikers
  • Florida and New Jersey issue class E motorcycle licenses
  • North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah issue motorcycle endorsements to regular driver’s licenses
  • Indiana issues a category 4 driver’s licenses for bikers.

Although most states generally place moped and motorcycles into the same type of driver’s license, some states actually make a distinction between these and provide licenses for both vehicles under separate classes such as Hawaii (category 1 licenses), Kentucky (class E licenses) or South Carolina (class G licenses).

On the other hand, the local DMV in Maine provides special endorsements on licenses for moped and motorcycle operation.

Enhanced Licenses

Enhanced licenses (EDL) are issued by specific states, mainly California, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Washington and Vermont, and they provide other privileges, not just those related to driving.

These types of documents are Federal REAL ID and Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) compliant, and provide proof both of identification and of U.S. citizenship.

Because they have a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip that will signal the system to show biographic and biometric data to the officer at the border inspection station, EDLs can be used instead of a passport to return to the country by sea or land from Mexico and the Caribbean.

However, they are only acceptable for domestic flights and cannot be used for international air travel. You can use these types of driver’s licenses to enter military bases and a few federal facilities.

To get an EDL you must be a U.S. citizen, reside in one of the states that issue these types of driver’s licenses and comply with the state’s necessary requirements.

They normally cost between $30 and $80, and it normally takes two to three weeks for the application to be processed and the license to be sent by mail.

Although these are the main types of driver’s licenses available nowadays in the United States, some states have additional classifications.